Posted by on October 3, 2017

Intensive Livestock Operations;

and the Industrializing of Rural America[i]

by John Ikerd[ii]


Growing public concerns about environmental and public health risks are challenging the legitimacy of large-scale, industrial livestock feeding operations—called ILOs in Canada and CAFOs in the U.S. Some agricultural organizations and members of the general public are demanding that their state and local officials respond to their concerns through effective regulations or moratoriums on new construction. I reluctantly became involved with the CAFO controversy during the mid-1990s, when a large corporate livestock operation moved into the state of Missouri—while I was still on the faculty of the University of Missouri.

Since then, I have tried to keep up to date on the relevant research. I have also met with people in 17 states and 4 provinces of Canada who were confronting the threat of CAFOs to their communities. I also coauthored the section on “Community Impacts,’ in 2012 Canadian report on Intensive Livestock Operations, What’s On Your Plate? The Hidden Costs of Industrial Animal Agriculture in Canada.[1] That said, I certainly do not claim to be an expert on ILOs in Canada, and I will limit my comments to CAFOs in the US. I will leave it to Canadians to determine the extent to which my opinions and conclusions are relevant to ILOs in Canada.

A large and growing body of highly-credible scientific evidence validates the growing public concerns about industrial agriculture in general and industrial animal agriculture in particular. Relying on a few selective reports can be misleading when dealing with complex issues, such as CAFOs. “Meta-studies” are reports that rely on dozens or even hundreds of individual studies to draw generalizable scientific conclusions. For example, an extensive 2½-year study, of “industrial farm animal production” [aka. CAFOs] commissioned by the highly-reputable, non-partisan Pew Charitable Trust relied on more than 150 studies, as well as personal testimony by scientists and other highly reputable individuals, to support their conclusions.

Their 2008 report concluded: “The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves. The negative effects of the IFAP system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore.  Significant changes must be implemented and must start now.”[2] Five years later, a 2013 follow-up assessment by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health concluded that few if any positive changes had been made.[3] Meanwhile the scientific evidence supporting the initial indictment continues to grow.

People in rural areas are often told they should be willing to accept the environmental and public health risk because CAFOs are essential for future rural employment opportunities in animal agriculture. More than five decades of socioeconomic research and experience provide compelling evidence to the contrary. Whenever and wherever CAFOs have taken over a sector of animal agriculture, 90% or more of the independent family livestock and poultry producers ultimately were driven out of business. For example, the number of hog farms in the U.S. fell by more than 70 percent in the between 1992 and 2004, whereas total hog numbers remained stable.[4] CAFOs weren’t producing more pork, they were simply replacing family hog farms. This has not been a matter of competitive markets replacing less efficient family farmers. Large, corporate processors of animal products have used contractual arrangements with CAFO operators to manipulate supplies and prices to prevent independent farmers retaining access to competitive markets. CAFOs could well be the end of animal agriculture, instead of its future.

CAFOs also are touted as a rural economic development strategy. However, the negative economic and social impacts of industrial agriculture on rural communities are well documented by more than 50 years of research. A special socioeconomic report of the Pew Commission meta-study concluded: “Economically speaking, studies over the past 50 years demonstrate that the encroachment of industrialized agriculture operations upon rural communities, results in lower relative incomes for certain segments of the community and greater income inequality and poverty, a less active “Main Street,” decreased retail trade, and fewer stores in the community.”[5] One need only look at what has been happening to rural economies and communities in America over the past 50 years to confirm these conclusions.

A 2006 meta-study commissioned by the North Dakota Attorney General’s office relied on 56 peer-reviewed journal articles in concluding: “Based on the evidence generated by social science research, we conclude that public concern about the detrimental community impacts of industrialized farming is warranted. In brief, this conclusion rests on five decades of government and academic concern with this topic, a concern that has not abated but that has grown more intense in recent years, as the social and environmental problems associated with large animal confinement operations have become widely recognized. And it rests on the new round of risks posed by industrialized farming to Heartland agriculture, communities, the environment, and regional development as a whole.[6] Industrial agriculture is not rural economic development, it is rural economic degradation and destruction.

Air and water pollution typically are treated as environmental issues, but pollution by CAFOs and other industrial agricultural sources represent significant risks to public health. The noxious odors from CAFOs are made up of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, methane, and dozens of other chemical compounds and particulates that present a significant risk to human health. Excess nitrogen in ground and surface waters, resulting from over-fertilization of crops with CAFO manure, is another major source concern. Excess nitrate in drinking water can kill babies and cause severe health problems for vulnerable adults. Biological contaminants originating from CAFOs include E-Coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria, and Campylobacter. These pollutants not only affect the health of workers and neighbors of CAFOs but can also contaminate sources of drinking water for people living in rural municipalities as well as distant cities.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria, such the deadly MRSA, could well be the greatest immediate public health risk of CAFOs. Antibiotic resistance destroys the ability of antibiotics to combat infectious diseases and ultimately could reverse the single most important advancement in modern medicine. A 2013 U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention concluded: “Scientists around the world have provided strong evidence that antibiotic use in food-producing animals can harm public health… Use of antibiotics in food-producing animals allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive while susceptible bacteria are suppressed or die. Resistant bacteria can be transmitted from food-producing animals to humans through the food supply.”[7] Numerous studies have found significant percentages of livestock and poultry products in U.S. supermarkets to be contaminated with a variety of infectious bacteria some of which are potentially deadly.[8] A large percentage of the bacteria, including MRSA, have been resistant to multiple antibiotics.[9]

A recent global summit of Heads of State at the United Nations General Assembly, only the fourth related to human health crises, concluded: “The high levels of AMR [antimicrobial resistance] already seen in the world today are the result of overuse and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in humans, animals, and crops, as well as the spread of residues of these medicines in soil, crops and water.[10] The Director-General of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization stated:  “Antimicrobial resistance is a problem not just in our hospitals, but on our farms and in our food, too. Agriculture must shoulder its share of responsibility, both by using antimicrobials more responsibly and by cutting down on the need to use them.” Recent government “guidelines” for antibiotic use in animal agriculture in the US are voluntary on the part of pharmaceutical companies and allow legal use of antibiotics for “preventative” as well as therapeutic purposes. Animal death losses in the absence of “preventative” antibiotic use would put many CAFOs out of business.

It’s important to understand that CAFO operators are not necessarily to blame for the current situation. Many have been convinced by the “agricultural establishment”[iii] that CAFOs are the future of animal agriculture. If they wanted to stay in “farming” and to provide opportunities for their children to farm, they will need to operate CAFOs. The U.S. government has also made it easy to borrow money to build CAFOs and many operators take out large loans. The corporate squeeze on market prices paid to independent hog farmers in the late 1990s convinced many they could no longer afford to take the risks of producing without a contract—particularly if they have taken out large loans. Once they have made the investment in buildings and equipment, which have few alternative uses, they are locked into operating the CAFO until their debt can be paid off, which in reality rarely happens. People have a natural tendency to defend their decisions, but CAFO operators have little choice—if they expect to keep their contract and pay off their debts.

Many CAFO operators seem to believe the industrialization of animal agriculture is the natural evolution of impersonal free markets. They accept it as being inevitable. They fail to realize the extent to which markets for agricultural commodities reflect intentional government policies. Even as early as the 1980s, U.S. farm policies were being shaped, if not yet dictated, by large agribusiness corporations who had their own plan or strategy for the “economic development” of rural America. The corporate plan was to extract the economic wealth of rural areas as efficiently and as quickly as possible. In economics “time is money.” The soil, air, water, living ecosystem are all economic resources to be extracted and used—until they are used up. Resource conservation, regeneration, and renewal all take time and cost money.

The corporations see farmers, ranchers, and others in rural areas simply as means of facilitating the process of extracting economic wealth from rural areas. Rural America is not valued as a place to live, raise a family, or be a part of a caring community. Rural culture has no economic value. As the economic usefulness of rural people and places is degraded and depleted, rural people are expected to simply move into town, where they can be economically useful again. Regardless of whether this is a conscious corporate plan, it’s a natural consequence of a logical corporate business strategy—giving corporate profits priority over the social and ethical values of rural people. The large agribusiness corporations that dominate global agriculture today are purely economic entities. They are neither good nor evil. They have no capacity for social or ethical values.

I have documented the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts of industrial agriculture in my work over the past 30 years. I have also addressed the domination of U.S. farm and food policy by industrial agriculture in numerous blogs and papers, which I need not repeat here. And, I have written about the corporate domination of U.S. agricultural policy on several other occasions, notably in my recent paper, “The Economic Colonization of Rural America.”[11] Many other social scientists have done much the same. Growing public awareness and resistance to industrial agriculture has forced corporate agriculture to become increasingly aggressive and overt in implementing their grand land-use plan for rural America.

In an attempt to stem the tide of growing public concerns, the “agricultural establishment,” has mounted a multimillion-dollar propaganda campaign designed to – in their words to – “increase confidence and trust in today’s agriculture.”[12] Food Dialogues is one initiative of the broader campaign that is sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. The organization’s board members include the American Farm Bureau Federation, John Deere, and the major agricultural commodity organizations. Board members Monsanto and DuPont each initially pledged $500,000 per year to the campaign. A study by Friends of the Earth documents more than a dozen similar “front groups” have been spending more than $25 million per year to defend industrial agriculture.[13] The campaigns have hired some of the nation’s top public relations firms to try to polish the tarnished public image of industrial agriculture.

“Right-to-farm laws” (RTF) were the first overt attempt in the U.S. to establish a “legal right” to use industrial agricultural practices to extract economic wealth from rural areas. The early RTF laws, beginning in the 1980s, were sold to US voters as being necessary to minimize the threat of unwarranted nuisance litigation and prohibitive government regulation of “normal farming practices.”[14] The laws seemed reasonable, as suburbs had begun to rapidly expand into rural farming areas. Of course, the agricultural establishment made sure normal farming practices were carefully defined to include industrial agricultural practices. All 50 states in the U.S. now have some form of right to farm law.

More recent RTF laws go beyond earlier laws to include any future farming practices the “agriculture establishment” might choose to define as “normal farming practices,” which obviously will include the latest industrial agricultural chemical and biological technologies. An agricultural operation can still be sued by its neighbors if it creates a “legal nuisance.” Under the new laws, however, if neighbors win their law suit, the economic damages awarded by the court cannot exceed the depreciation in market values of property and medical expenses that can be linked to the agricultural operation. Punitive damages are limited to a percentage of economic damages. Even more important, once the initial nuisance suit is settled, the agricultural operation is treated as a “permanent nuisance,” meaning it can continue to operate as usual and cannot be sued again.

These new RTF laws essentially give farming operations the right of “eminent domain.” The right of eminent domain can be granted to corporations or individuals but can be used only when deemed necessary to provide essential “public benefits.” Also, eminent domain requires “just compensation” to be paid up-front—without requiring any legal action on the part of the parties deprived of the peaceful enjoyment of their property. New RTF laws even go beyond the controversial eminent domain powers given to corporations to redevelop slum areas of cities. Industrial agriculture is neither economically necessary nor socially beneficial.

The new RTF laws may well be declared unconstitutional, so the agribusiness corporations have now come up with another strategy to support their continued exploitation. They are overtly promoting land-use planning in the form of agricultural zoning ordinances. Zoning laws are actually needed to protect farmland from commercial and residential development. However, if such laws are to serve the long run public interest, they must ensure that farmland is used to meet the basic food needs of all in the present without diminishing opportunities for the future—they must preserve the opportunity for sustainable agricultural production.

The current agenda of the corporate agricultural establishment seems to be to avoid conflicts with neighbors of industrial agricultural operations by zoning new “non-farm” residences out of rural areas and driving existing rural residents into the cities with noxious farming practices. The US state of Missouri’s Agri-ready Counties must “not have any health or zoning ordinances that discourage, limit or restrict agricultural operations.”[15] The state of Indiana’s proposed agriculture zoning ordinances would set aside agricultural zones where new residences are strictly limited to those supporting commercial agricultural enterprises. These new land-use planning initiatives seem to be an admission that the factory-like livestock operations and chemical intensive cropping systems that characterize industrial agriculture are not safe or pleasant places to live or work on or live nearby.

Further expansion of industrial agricultural operations would make rural areas increasingly undesirable places to live and eventually would drive all of the remaining independent family farmers out of their homes. Organic farms and other sustainable farming operations would be driven out of business by pesticide and GMO pollen drift and polluted irrigation and drinking water. The only people left in agriculturally zoned areas would be low-paid, hired laborers who were willing to work on industrial agricultural operations because they were desperate for jobs. The wealthy landowners and corporate investors would live elsewhere. Once-healthy family farming areas would be turned into “sacrifice zones,” saturated with agricultural chemical and biological wastes. This new land-use planning strategy seems to be a next logical step after the new right-to-farm laws, which essentially define industrial agriculture as a “permanent nuisance.” This could be an important change in corporate strategy that those who care about the future of rural America need to be ready to refute and to combat.

Farms should be pleasant and healthy places to work on, live on, and to live around – not toxic factories that must be isolated from civil society. The new sustainable American farmers know how to farm and live in harmony with their neighbors and with nature. They may be organic farmers or may prefer names such as regenerative, ecological, holistic, natural, biodynamic, permaculture, restorative, or just plain family farmers. They are still the minority of all farmers in the US, but their numbers are growing. In fact, organic and local foods are the fastest growing sectors of the US food system. These new farmers know how to produce enough good food for everyone without degrading the quality of life, productivity, or sustainability of rural places or people. The rest of us need to help them by buying their products and by “dethroning the corporate kings” that are dictating agricultural and rural public policy. We need help create a sustainable food system that gives the long-run well-being of people priority over short-run profits of corporations.


End Notes:

[i] Prepared for presentation at a public event, “Pork and Pollution, from Land to Lake,” University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba, September 21, 2017.

[ii] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism-a Matter of Common Sense, Essentials of Economic Sustainability, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, Crisis and Opportunity-Sustainability in American Agriculture, and A Revolution of the Middle-the Pursuit of Happiness, all books available on Books and Kindle E-books.

Email:; Website: or .

[iii] The agricultural establishment refers to agribusiness corporations, national commodity organizations, the American Farm Bureau Federation, most state departments of agriculture and agricultural colleges.

[1] World Society for Protection of Animals, “What’s On Your Plate? The Hidden Costs of Industrial Animal Agriculture,” 2012, .

[2] Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production: “Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America,” 2008, , full report, .

[3] Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, “Industrial Food Production in America; Examining the impacts of the Pew Commissions primary recommendations.”

[4] Nigel Key and William McBride, Changing Economics of U.S. Hog Production, ERS, USDA, Economic Research Report Number 52 December 2007, , p iii.

[5] Pew Commission Report on Industrial Animal Agriculture, “Impact of Industrial Farm Animal Production on Rural Communities,” 2008?, .

[6] Curt Stofferahn, “Industrialized Farming and Its Relationship to Community Well-Being,” p. 30. .

[7] US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013 Executive Summary, .

[8] Cuiwei Zhao, and others, Prevalence of Campylobacter spp., Escherichia coli, and Salmonella Serovars in Retail Chicken, Turkey, Pork, and Beef from the Greater Washington, D.C., Area, Applied Environmental Microbiology, December 2001 vol. 67 no. 12. .

[9] Andrew E. Waters and others, Multidrug-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus in US Meat and Poultry, Clinical Infectious Diseases, (2011) 52 (10):1227-1230, published online: April 15, 2011, .

[10] General Assembly of the United Nations, “At UN Global Leaders Commit to Act on Antimicrobial Resistance,” .

[11] John Ikerd, “The Economic Colonization of Rural America; Increasing Vulnerability in an Volatile World,” presented at the Rural Sociology Society Annual Conference, Columbus, OH, July 29, 2017. .

[12] Food Dialogues, “About USFRA,” .

[13] Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, “Spinning Food,” Friends of the Earth, .

[14] Wikipedia, “Right to Farm Law,” .\

[15] Missouri Farmers Care, “Agri-ready Counties, Open for Business,” .



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